What is Selling Out These Days?

As I creep slowly up the music business food chain and have thought about the state of the music business, I have had to think about what the term selling out means.  I grew up when the music business was healthy.  I also grew up following the punk and independent music scene quite closely.  There were people who “sold out” and who “didn’t sell out”.  It meant various things to various people, and was never clearly defined, but it was more so than today.  Lou Reed made a Honda commercial, but I don’t think anyone could ever accuse him of selling out.  Meanwhile a band like Fugazi never even allowed themselves to be interviewed in magazines that had booze or tobacco ads.  Johnny Rotten, John Lydon, did a butter ad a couple years ago, but he claimed this was only to get Public Image Ltd, a very avant garde band, back to making records.  Sometimes things stick to artists and sometimes they don’t.   Really I think you have to measure someone’s whole career and determine if they have artistic integrity.

Back in the renaissance,  in Italy, there was a rich and powerful family named the Medici family.  They funded the arts heavily.  They were patrons of such artists as Michaelangelo.   Basically in one way or another artists need their Medici family.  It is preferable if this is done through funding through the general public, as lots of small patrons cannot really force an artist to compromise their vision. 

However, what do you do in an age when no one is buying records the way they once were?  Art costs money to make.  Bills still need to be paid. 

You see more and more artists making corporate partnerships in order to survive.  More and more artists also appear in commercials as mainstream radio has been neutered almost completely.   This makes me uncomfortable because large corporations often act unethically.  Part of the purpose of art is to speak truth to power.  It becomes harder to do, though it is not impossible, if an artist is funded by that power.  No one will accuse John Lydon anytime soon of biting his tongue.  But he was well established by the time he made a commercial.  I do think that the relationship between corporations and artists is corrupting,  if not to every artist, then at least in the industry overall.  If it is hard to pinpoint exactly who has been corrupted,  it does seem like there is less art speaking truth to power than during the 60’s or the punk rock era. 

I don’t have the answer to these questions.  I just think it is worth thinking about.  I do think that it is important that individuals support artists with their own money through buying of records, supporting radio stations that don’t have corporate playlists, etc.  In a capitalist society you vote with your money.  If you want art that means something you need to be willing to pay for it.  I am still a person that buys almost all of my records, because I view it as investing in an art that means something to me.  Music has, if not literally saved my life, definitely kept me sane.  I want there to continue to be artists that aren’t afraid to speak their mind and to expose their soul. 

The Great Rock N Roll Swindle


An interesting read about the punk movement and the movie The Great Rock N Roll Swindle for those of you so inclined.  I have been listening to the soundtrack in the van.  Off to Louisiana today, so posting may be slow. 

A Great Piece on Popular Problems


Leonard Cohen in the Daily Beast

The above article is one of the best write ups I’ve seen yet of the new Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems.  If you are a Leonard Cohen fan or even just enjoy smart music criticism then it is worth checking out.  An excerpt:

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot

This is dark Jewish humor at its most arch: being a little dead “a lot” (rhyming with “thought”) is like being a little bit pregnant. (And his parents can’t even agree if Cohen, who observes the Sabbath, is chosen or not.)  And yet he’s serious—dead serious, as a near-80-year-old man contemplating murder, knowing his body is losing capacity all along the way. Being dead “a lot” is an existential proposition, especially for an octogenarian who has been standing down death since he wrote his earliest poems more than 50 years ago. 

The Creativity of 80’s Post-Punk

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early to mid 80’s punk, post punk, and hardcore.  I know that there are some of you that can’t get into that music for the dissonance involved.  To me it is just so pure.  It’s like industrial folk music.  It’s like a primary color.  You can’t dilute the stuff.  It is also music that is full of ideas.  So much of what passes as punk nowadays is bland.  It’s like pop music with loud guitars.  This stuff was primal.  I was born in ’78 and didn’t even start getting into records till the very late 80’s, so it’s not like I’m viewing this stuff with rose tinted glasses.

There were certain punk bands like Minor Threat and the Misfits that made it into my world as an adolescent, but a lot of the great bands from that era didn’t.  It seems like music was more regional then.  A lot of the East Coast bands seemed to be in my friends’ older brothers’ record collections, but ones from the west coast didn’t have as much of an impact on us in our youth. (I grew up in Pennsylvania.)

A lot of this stuff is also really interesting musically.  It used punk as a jumping off point, but wasn’t punk in the way that it is often thought about now.  This stuff was artistic, even if the working class kids that made of lot of these records weren’t thinking in necessarily an art school kind of way.  Maybe a better word would be creative.  It was creative music made by creative people.

I mean what do you make of the Bad Brains?  They sound like space aliens at warp speed.  I don’t even know if they played songs most of the time.  It’s more like four guys got together and created the sound of a mechanical whale breaching.  I don’t think their early recordings could be recreated.  They are almost like someone captured a one time natural event.

Listen to the guitar playing in the band Embrace, Ian MacKaye’s project between Minor Threat and Fugazi.  It’s so melodic, but it’s almost liquid in form.  As soon as you try to pin it down it changes shape.

Or take a listen to Black Flag’s My War.  At times it veers closer to Black Sabbath than true punk music, but that’s the thing, the really great bands from this era didn’t have rules.  It could be extremely political or it could be garish fun like The Misfits.  All this music is the sound of individuals expressing themselves.

I am an obsessive music fan that will spend hours some nights just combing the internet looking to stumble upon a new sound or a great new band.  I really really want there to be great new bands.  So many nights though, I end up hearing style over personality.  There are many bands that can create cathedrals of sound, only for those cathedrals to be hollow at the center.  I am not looking for any specific thing, other then that thing that once you hear it, you know what it is.  It’s the sound of someone expressing themselves as best they can.

We are dropping bombs on other nations.  There are people dating naked on our television screens.  People are having trouble finding meaningful work.  Doesn’t anyone have anything to say about what’s going on?!!!

Popular Problems


Samson in New Orleans

You said that you were with me
You said you were my friend
Did you really love the city
Or did you just pretend

You said you loved her secrets
And her freedoms hid away
She was better than America
That’s what I heard you say

You said how could this happen
You said how can this be
The remnant all dishonored
On the bridge of misery

And we who cried for mercy
From the bottom of the pit
Was our prayer so damn unworthy
The Son rejected it?

So gather up the killers
Get everyone in town
Stand me by those pillars
Let me take this temple down

The king so kind and solemn
He wears a bloody crown
So stand me by that column
Let me take this temple down

You said how could this happen
You said how can this be
The chains are gone from heaven
The storms are wild and free

There’s other ways to answer
That certainly is true
Me, I’m blind with death and anger
And that’s no place for you

There’s a woman in the window
And a bed in Tinsel Town
I’ll write you when it’s over
Let me take this temple down

By Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, comes out today.  I will review it at some point, but for today I thought I would just share one of the sets of lyrics.  Cohen has long been a hero of mine.  His work is complex and I don’t envy anyone that tries to accurately portray one of his works in print after only a couple spins.

Embrace and Ian MacKaye

Growing up I was influenced greatly by the east coast punk, post-punk, and hardcore movements.  One of my my heroes was Minor Threat and Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye.  Although I had heard of them before I only recently discovered MacKaye’s short lived band Embrace, which only ever put out one album.  Those of you that are fans of any of MacKaye’s work will find that Embrace is simply outstanding.  It is more melodic than most of Minor Threat and Fugazi.  However, the guitar work by Michael Hampton is completely incendiary.  Check out song two on their album, Dance of Days, up above.  Those of you that love post-punk and hardcore will find a singular sound here.

Body Count- Talk S**t, Get Shot (Official Music Video)

BODY COUNT – Talk S**t, Get Shot (Official Music …: http://youtu.be/sokdL-0iV9s

Many of you won’t understand why I love this video.  I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t make me laugh every time I watch it.  It has questionable morals, but it is a fantasy.  It is the musical equivalent of a grind house movie.  The Ice man is creating a violent fantasy in which those that anonymously talk shit on the internet are hunted down and killed for their deeds.  It’s so over-the-top that for me it crosses over into the realm of comedy.  Also, in an age of PC plastic popstars, I am happy that Ice-T and his heavy metal band Body Count dare to go to insane lengths to offend.  The album as a whole ping pongs back and forth between absurd fantasy and astute social commentary.  It was Bob Dylan himself that compared Ice-T’s poetry to throwing horses over cliffs.  He is just having fun.  Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I can put on Body Count and find a cheap laugh and a twisted smile.